International Space Station gearing up for scientific results in 2013
While it was a success in itself to construct the $100 billion space station ISS, and to keep it manned consistently since over a decade now, the on-board laboratories and experimental capabilities are underutilized and didn't yield abundant results until now. Only 72 percent of NASA's science racks, which house experiments, are currently used - a figure that the agency plans to up to 80 percent in 2013.
Another issue were work-hours: for the period from 2000 to 2008, astronauts were averaging only three hours of science work a week. There were only a crew of 3 astronauts during that time, and those had their hands full with construction and maintenance of the space station. That has changed now, since the station is completed, and the crew expanded to a steady space population of 6. In 2012, astronauts spent about 50 hours a week on research, and that could increase further this year, with the arrival of three new crew members just before Christmas who are set to focus on scientific work. "Twenty-thirteen really promises to be a productive one," said the Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield after arriving at the outpost.
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Their research topics include studying of solar rays in a special module, or investigating how microgravity affects the spinal cord on fish and their bones - insights on the way to understand why astronauts lose bone density while in space.
"As the coming year unfolds, NASA will continue to conduct important research on the International Space Station, which continues to yield scientific benefits and provide key information about how humans may live and thrive in the harsh environment of space," NASA leaders wrote in a report released at the end of the year.
New research gear will also be supplied to facilitate this goal. The "Animal Enclosure Module", already used several times onboard the Space shuttle, will allow scientists to study the effects of weightlessness on rodents - which could help doctors develop better medicines for bone and muscle ailments by testing drugs intended to treat osteoporosis or illnesses that degrade the muscles, such as Lou Gehrig's disease.
"A 30-day-old mouse on the station has the bone and muscle structure of a 60-to-70-year-old woman," said Marybeth Edeen, NASA manager of the station's national laboratory. The accelerated processes in the rodents in a zero-g environment enables drug companies to quickly assess the results of experimental medicines, she said.
NASA also plans to increase the number of plant test beds on the station and add a new "atom lab" in the next couple years that will be cold enough to slow atomic particles - giving scientists a tool to better study their makeup.
Another experiment is the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, a device that consists of a tube wrapped in powerful magnets, allowing it to sense and record cosmic rays - comparable to the huge sensors attached to particle accelerators like LHC. The AMS already recorded 27 billion interstellar particles since it was installed outside of an ISS laboratory module in 2011. The first results, involving the absence of anti-matter in our universe and what that says about its formation process, are set to be published soon: "The first [AMS] papers will come out in summer 2013," Edeen said.